But is the allure of Virtual Worlds another example of trying to fit the methodology around the tool or is there worthwhile learning to be gained in Virtual Worlds as opposed to a real-life classroom? In order to better understand interacting and socialising in a virtual environment, I created accounts at Virtual Worlds - Small Worlds and Second Life, and also the sand-box video game phenomenon Minecraft.
Benefits of Virtual Worlds
Virtual Worlds, particularly those within a Role-Playing Game (RPG) can easily immerse you in their world. While walking around and interacting in SmallWorlds, I quickly lost track of how much time I was spending there.The ability to stay on task can be a major hindrance to learning. For most people it is very difficult to sit and study textbooks for hours on end. Virtual Worlds offer some appeal as a way of sustaining interest and staying on task. While it would be naive to think that an activity would be any more interesting or fun simply by taking place in a Virtual World, nonetheless, the motions and actions involved, such as scrolling, messaging and moving your avatar around, may be all the stimulus required to keep you on task. Taking a walk around a virtual museum can feel more pleasurable than say flicking through the pages of an art book, even though the information may well be more easily accessed from the book. As Taylor (2002: 42) puts it 'Users do not simply roam through the space as “mind”, but find themselves grounded in the practice of the body, and thus in the world'
That being said, Virtual Worlds can offer a host of opportunities unavailable in the real world, such as the ability to explore replicas of real world locations, converse with native speakers of a language you are learning, or even for some, simply the ability to walk, talk or be treated the same as any other person in the world. Second Life has been known to help people with Asperger Syndrome learn social skills. 'they ae free to create a "second life" with a level of social interaction that, for reasons of their condition, has been hard to come by in their real lives.' (For an indepth list of the affordances of SL for Education, see Warburton, S. 2009: 421)
Second life even gives you the ability to fly
Virtual Worlds start you on an even playing field, without having to worry about physical appearance, fashion, or other factors that may cause a person to be anxious, and could be a major boost to aid social development, and thus better influence language learners in communication.
Virtual me is acne-free
It being a virtual world also opens up the possibilities of exploring methods of teaching that would be impossible in the real world. Students could learn the value of teamwork by working as a team to take down a monster in an MMORPG or what problems astronauts face in zero-gravity.
People may also become attached to their Virtual Avatars and personas. While exploring Minecraft, I became quite attached to the home I had built for myself and was fearful of dying in-world, as it would mean losing everything I had built so far.
Home, Sweet Home
Marcus Dickinson, an avid EVE Online player, lost 45lbs in an effort to closer resemble his macho avatar from the game. This linking of your personality to your online persona can go a long way to establishing an online presence and overcome what Dreyfus ( 2001: 39) describes as 'the Net's limitations where embodiment is concerned' Taylor (2002: 42) again notes 'that the avatar comes to signal to the user their continued participation in the space. Unlike text-based worlds, in which presence is performed via conscious action (or signaled through a room listing), presence in graphical worlds is rearticulated to both others and self by the simple inclusion of an avatar.'
Though the uses of Virtual Worlds may only be limited by your imagination, there may be some potential drawbacks. Computer problems and lag may be amplified on such large networks. I found the lag on Second Life quite jarring, as well as the limited view on Small Worlds making it hard to know where I was going. I found it very easy to get lost in Minecraft, with places all starting to look the same. Taylor (2002: 44) continued that 'Seeing people inadvertently walk through walls or suddenly disappear are persistent problems in many systems. This feeling of being suddenly pulled back out of the virtual world highlights the fragility of multiple forms of embodiment, especially in relation to the digital' and takes away from the online presence we worked so hard to achieve, mentioned in the previous paragraph.
Socially, it can be no utopia either. Your world might be prone to unwelcome guests or 'griefers'. Interaction, or lack of, is more pronounced with an in-world avatar than more text-based mediums. Cliques huddling together, or players ignoring another character are much more noticeable than say on a forum. The lack of identity, while allowing greater freedom, also makes it hard to read people and how to gauge their responses. Am I talking to a child or an adult? Is this person joking, or crazy? (For a more indepth list of barriers v potential in the use of SL see Warburton, S. 2009: 422)
Social Interactions in Virtual Worlds
Virtual Worlds offer the opportunity for large groups of people to interact online. It was truly fascinating to see how people behaved and learned socially through this medium and I have decided to follow this path in my upcoming assignment for the course. Ducheneaut & Moore (2005: 89) note that 'some game designers have clearly expressed the intent to create games where socialization is encouraged and rewarded' Such intent is noticeable in games with overpowered enemies, which require players to team up to defeat them, or games such as Team Fortress 2, where player must work together to defeat other teams, each player having a different role to play. As Ducheneaut & Moore (2005: 91)
'gamers need to do much more than mindlessly accumulate experience points (xp): they also need to increase thier social capital within the game's society. In other words, they need not only learn the game commands, but they must also become socialized into the game community'
From what I have seen from Virtual Worlds, they seem like an ideal place for role-playing and team exercises. The potential to create scenarios that engage the student's in problem-solving situation and communication is very high and I someday hope to take advantage of this in my classroom. I recently came across an English lesson using Minecraft and in fact saw several websites and blogs dedicated to teaching through the use of Minecraft. Minecraft is very popular with my students and is accessible using their smartphones, making it relatively easy to access in class. One student even invited me to his Virtual World, and though he immediately killed my character, he was engaging me in English, telling me where to go and what I should do, drawing parallels with what Rama et al (2012: 335) state that
'From the moment a game starts, players are immersed in a target language context where they have multiple options for engaging in authentic communication via speaking, reading, writing, and listening with a range of interlocutors, often in ways that allow risk-taking and reflection in the target language'
- CARLSON, D. Chubby gamer loses 45 pounds to look more like his avatar [online] Inquistr News (2010) [viewed December 9th 2015] Available at: http://www.inquisitr.com/377809/chubby-gamer-loses-45-pounds-to-look-more-like-his-avatar/
- Dreyfus, H. (2001) On the Internet, 2, pp. 26-49, London: Routledge
- Ducheneaut, N. & Moore, R. (2005) More than just XP: learning social skills in massively multiplayer online games, Interactive Technology and Smart Education, 2, pp.89-100
- LOFTUS, C. Virtual world teaches real world skills [online] New York: NBC News (2005) [viewed December 9th 2015] Available at: http://www.nbcnews.com/id/7012645/ns/health-mental_health/t/virtual-world-teaches-real-world-skills/#.VmeZjtIrLct
- Rama, P et al (2012) Affordances for second language learning in World of Warcraft. ReCALL 24, 3, pp.322-338
- Taylor, T, L. (2002) Living Digitally: Embodiment in Virtual Worlds. In Schroeder (Ed) The Social Life of EAvatars: Presence and Interaction in Shared Virtual Environments. London: Springer-Verlag, (chapter 3)
- Warburton, S. (2009) Second Life in higher education: Assessing the potential for and the barriers to deploying virtual worlds in learning and teaching. British Journal of Educational Technology, 40, 3, pp.414 - 426